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YOWERI MUSEVENI may not have squirrelled away as much money as some of Africa’s other long-serving leaders, but few have accumulated a comparable wealth in nicknames. Uganda’s president since 1986, he has been called “M7”, “Sevo”, “Othello”, “and Napoleon” (apparently after the ruler in George Orwell’s “Animal Farm”) and “the East African Lion”, among others. His latest moniker derives from his preoccupation with rural life—his own rather than his people’s. Thanks to the inordinate amount of time the 69-year-old spends on his cattle farm in southern Uganda, he is now known as “the Gentleman Farmer”.
In the 1990s Mr. Museveni was hailed across Africa as a new kind of leader, empowering rather than impoverishing his people. He restored stability after decades of bloody upheaval. He boosted economic growth after long years of ruin. He beat back a dreadful HIV/AIDS epidemic. He was hailed in the West as an exemplar of a new breed of dynamic and democratic African leader who deserved generous aid for development. He remains popular at home and might win a fair election. But the coterie of loyalists who surround him dare not take that risk. Democracy in Uganda has been badly eroded.
Mr. Museveni, in any event, seems increasingly erratic. At a recent event he told a group of youths that he had learnt about an American form of music called rap, evidently unaware that it predates his presidency. The Gentleman Farmer then gave his own improvised rendition of two Ugandan folk songs, “I cut a stick” and “Give me the stick”. Recordings of the event were later set to thumping beats by joking Ugandan DJs. Some Ugandans were cheered. Others felt queasy.
Mr. Museveni is virtually the only decision-maker in the government. Almost nothing gets done without his nod. Officials must travel down to his farm from Kampala to seek his blessing for their plans. But while the president’s signature on a policy paper is necessary, it is not sufficient to move the sluggish state machine into action. Plenty of officials have their own agendas and exploit the president’s remoteness. They undermine or obstruct initiatives blessed by him if they can do it undetected and make some money.
The auditor-general recently reported that US$100m was diverted last year from government coffers. No sector of the economy has been as badly handled as oil, which was discovered seven years ago. This month the government finally unveiled plans for refineries that should have been begun three or four years ago.
Decades of presidential dominance have driven away the best officials, who have gone abroad or into private business—anywhere away from Uganda’s shambolic government. A hollowed-out civil service is hamstrung by the commercial interests of politically connected Ugandans. This infuriates the president, who punishes underlings with a vengeance. Officials live in fear of his wrath. A single mistake can end a career. Those who survive tend to be yes-men. “What counts here is patronage, not capacity,” says a Western diplomat. “The president has assembled around him the least talented, most clown-like advisers.”
Thus bereft of talent, the Museveni court is in disarray. Insiders fight among themselves. The prime minister, parliamentary speaker and other senior members of the National Resistance Movement, the ruling party, are building competing power bases in readiness for the president’s eventual departure.
But when that will come is unclear. Mr. Museveni has made no public plans for his succession. His son, Muhoozi Kainerugaba, whose military career is taking off faster than one of Mr. Museveni’s cherished Russian fighter jets, has been mentioned. Other family members are also close to the levers of power. Mr. Museveni’s wife (a cabinet member), sister, brother, a stepbrother and a cousin all hold lofty political posts. Ugandan newspapers list dozens of family members in the government.
Or at least they used to. New laws and assertive policing are muzzling dissent. Two papers and two radio stations were forced to close this year. Thanks to the public-order-management bill passed in May, any meeting of three or more people may be deemed illegal. In practice Uganda remains a fairly open society, but the authoritarian mood is getting harsher. Civil-society groups remain strong, but parliament is no match for the executive.
Comparisons between Mr. Museveni and Idi Amin, the Ugandan “president for life” who butchered tens of thousands of his people in the 1970s, have become more common. Mr. Museveni is a lot less brutal but shares the same love of power. Although Uganda is nominally a multiparty democracy, dirty tricks keep the opposition weak; its leaders tend to end up in prison on trumped-up charges.
Rumors of military coups come and go. Some say the old man talks them up to expose or dish his foes. He knows a thing or two about armed revolts; after all, he helped overthrow both Amin in 1979 and Milton Obote, who ruled before and then after Amin, in 1985. To avoid such a fate, Mr. Museveni promotes young officers to senior military and civilian posts to keep his old guard off balance. The youngsters often visit his farm to pledge allegiance.
But Mr. Museveni is only a part-time gentleman farmer. It was some years ago that he got Parliament to drop the two-term limit on the presidency. Now it will be expected to lift the constitutional age limit of 75, allowing him to run for a full term in the election due in 2016. Mr. Museveni seems to have forgotten what he wrote a quarter of a century ago: “The problem of Africa in general and Uganda in particular is not the people, but leaders who want to overstay in power.”
Economist, Oct 12th 2013 (http://www.economist.com/news/leaders/21587787-too-many-dinosaurs